The low roar fills the nearly empty arena, building in intensity as David Singleton’s UCLA teammates gather around him in a loose circle.
Yep! Yep! Yep!
Those teammates push the fifth-year senior one way, then another, everyone clapping rhythmically, smiles all around.
Hey! Hey! Hey!
Steadying himself, Singleton gets everyone ready to go 43 minutes before tip-off.
There’s no telling which pair from David Singleton’s massive Air Jordan collection the UCLA guard will wear Saturday afternoon against No. 13 Kentucky.
“Let’s go, white!” he yells inside T-Mobile Arena, referring to the team’s uniform color. “Let’s go, white!”
Another roar follows as the circle tightens, arms shooting into the air toward one another in unison. They will do it all again shortly before the game starts, Singleton addressing his teammates once more.
“You know,” point guard Tyger Campbell said, “he kinda always seems to know what to say.”
The ritual that has made the Bruins unbreakable no matter how many players are injured starts with a veteran hype man who understands exactly what he’s pitching.
No one loves UCLA basketball more. The Los Angeles native was so excited to be a Bruin that he slept on the Pauley Pavilion court as a freshman. Showing up unannounced, he once delivered game-worn shoes to the home of a fan who had written a letter of admiration.
When coach Mick Cronin said last weekend that he would file a petition for Singleton to come back for a sixth season after this NCAA tournament run that starts Thursday night at the Golden 1 Center against North Carolina Asheville, he may not have been kidding.
The sharpshooter isn’t just good for sinking three-pointers and making everyone feel good. What makes Singleton irreplaceable to those teammates who push him before every game is his willingness to push back.
Singleton literally pushed 6-foot-10 center Adem Bona along the baseline earlier this season, a shove to the chest keeping the freshman from escalating tensions with a Washington counterpart who had gotten tangled up with him under the basket.
“I just told him, ‘Don’t talk to them, talk to us,’ ” Singleton said of his exchange with his teammate.
He got in Dylan Andrews’ face during a game against Arizona State after the freshman guard earned a technical foul for spouting off following a poster dunk.
“I told him after, ‘Yo, good energy, good dunk,’ ” Singleton said, “ ‘but keep it professional.’ ”
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He even got on his coach after Cronin was called for a surprise technical foul against Stanford, telling him not to get another one that would lead to his ejection.
Said Cronin: “I got upset because I got an unwarranted ‘T’ from a guy I wasn’t even talking to. So I think Dave thought I was going to lose my mind.”
Said Singleton: “Coach and I both know we’re playing for something bigger than the both of us. He gets a little heated at times, but I’m grateful we have a coach that wants it that bad, you know?”
“I understand I might not be the best player on the court, but I know I can contribute something and if leadership is what this team needs to take the next step in winning the next championship, then I’ll give the team leadership.”
— UCLA senior David Singleton
Cronin returned the favor by keeping Singleton in the starting lineup after Jaylen Clark was lost to a leg injury even though the coach conceded part of him wanted to move freshman Will McClendon into that role. His reasoning?
“David’s been the most loyal player I’ve ever coached,” said Cronin, who’s about to complete his 20th season as a college head coach and 27th overall at the Division I level.
Cronin went on to say the trajectory of his UCLA career changed the moment he made Singleton a starter after a home loss to Stanford in January 2020.
UCLA has one of the most treacherous March Madness roads to the Final Four. In other words, Mick Cronin’s Bruins are stoked for the challenge ahead.
“Turns our season around,” said Cronin, whose team won 11 of its final 14 games before the COVID-19 shutdown, “just by following orders.”
The next season, Singleton moved back to the bench upon the arrival of star transfer Johnny Juzang, his influence quietly growing.
“Doesn’t say a word, steps up big, helps us beat Alabama in overtime, we go to the Final Four,” Cronin said.
That was also around the time that Singleton started leading the pregame hype huddle, hatching the idea after watching Michael Jordan speak to his Chicago Bulls teammates in the documentary “The Last Dance.” Singleton uses similar phrases, shouting “Hard work now!” before adding something tailored to what he’s feeling in that moment.
“It’s a great energy starter for the game,” Andrews said. “He always has his little pep talk to us, lets us know to stomp on these guys’ necks early in the game and if we can do that, no one can really stop us, man. So we love Dave for that.”
Pumping up the volume is needed given the nature of the other seniors. Campbell doesn’t like to say much. Jaime Jaquez Jr., the Pac-12 player of the year, can be too nice to get on anybody. Singleton doesn’t have that problem.
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“I understand I might not be the best player on the court,” Singleton said, “but I know I can contribute something and if leadership is what this team needs to take the next step in winning the next championship, then I’ll give the team leadership.”
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